Bolpur is the station stop for Santiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s university 180 kilometres north of Kolkata. Frenetic and jumbled in a small town kind of way and stuck right out in the sticks, it seems an unlikely getting off point for a visit to what was once a powerhouse of culture and ideas that took the lead in aesthetic terms in India for almost a quarter of a century. However for visiting academics and tourists, travelling in the air conditioned chair car of the Santiketan Express, you do get taster of what is to come. This appears in the form of framed photographs of Santinketan and portraits of the Tagore as well as reproductions of his artworks which adorn the train carriage walls along with fragments of Tagore’s poems in English and Bengali. The paintings and drawings are often weirdly beautiful and include the art nouveaux like doodles that he elaborated into fantastical inventions in his manuscripts. Starting out as corrections to his text they morph into fully blown graphic renditions of mythological beasts, birds and human faces that in a stream of consciousness spring from the words on the page to be organised in an overall design of abstract patterning.
People lament the demise of Santiniketan since Tagore’s day. They complain about the creeping bureaucratisation which is so antithetical to his temperament and mode of operation, and about the new building developments, the holiday homes, the traffic, the pollution, the hawkers and the day trippers. And to be sure its heyday as a centre for art and ideas, as a rural idyll and as an experimental community that commingled the aristocratic and the avant – garde with the downright folkish is long gone. And yet something of Santiketan’s particular ambience remains (hovering somewhere between the 1920s and 1960s). Students and professors still get about largely by bike, peddling along beneath large oriental trees with aerial roots that spread their canopies umbrella – like across the road. And children still take classes outdoors sitting in a semi circle on stone benches although these days security guards often have to ward away inquisitive sightseers who take snapshots of them across the parameter fence. And the extravagance and sensuality of the poet is still preserved in the complex of houses (now a museum and archive) that he designed to respond to the different seasons.
Children have been taking classes out of doors like this since the first school based on the tapovan forest schools was established in 1901 with its ethic of village life and contact with nature. Continuing in the same vein the Fine Arts Faculty, Kala Bhavan, is a picturesque arrangement of low buildings grouped around an open space dotted with trees, beneath which stone benches configured into loose circles provide an informal setting for the students to assemble. Noticeable here is the design department with its striking black and white mural by artist KG Subramanyam just one of the many important works located on the campus marking the fact that Santiketan is essentially a museum - ‘a major open air gallery of early modern Indian art.’ 1 Taking his lead from the poet, Nandlal Bose the first artist appointed by Tagore to teach at KalaBhavan, believed that art should not only appear on the curriculum, but should also figure prominently in the life of the community. Putting this into practice, his eminent pupils made their most important works here as permanent features of the place. Benodbehari Muhkerjee with several murals including his masterpiece the ‘Life of the Medieval Saints’ at Hindi Bhavan which was completed in 1947, and Ramknikar Baij with a series of monumental out door sculptures including Santhal Family from 1938. These works sit today in the cannon of Indian modernism and have served as points of reference for generations of Indian artists.
Almost everything at Santinketan can be traced back to Tagore, because it was after all predominantly his vision made manifest. And yet it is hard to encapsulate this vision without making it seem fuzzy. The complexity of it emerges out of the many facets of his personality and his extraordinarily diverse outputs in different disciplines including poetry, novels, plays, songs, paintings, philosophical texts, ideas about education, nationalism and rural development. Perhaps his genius was to construct a world from his own subjective choices and link these choices together to produce a singular vision. And his saving grace a methodology which proceeded through a process of testing out his intuitions against the data provided by the external world. Artistic licence gave him the largesse to bring somewhat discontinuous fields into relation, and so for example within his world view, nature and culture are synthesised, and modernity is produced out of tradition which was for him itself ‘a notional category allowing infinite extension of its own nurturing body through poetic allusion and metaphor.’ 2
Geeta Kapur describes the role of the artist within Tagore’s aesthetic project, and the place that he envisaged for the artist in terms of a national cultural revival in the following terms: He/she was ‘to attend to and participate in the Indian environment where the term is taken to include, in almost equal measure, nature and culture. For the artist close tuning with his natural environment meant developing something like an Indian/regional/local ‘naturalism.’ This itself involved a part philosophical, part materialist approach and synthesized into the idea of environment as culture.’ 3 At Santinketan naturalism and modernism were not automatically coached as contradictory terms. Modernism was ‘clearly manifest in Rabindranath Tagore’s life work’ as it was in the work of Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij. 4 National renewal as it related to the arts, while broadly part of the anti colonial struggle, and in particular a departure from the academicism of the British art school system, was not a wholesale rejection of the West. Instead the belief was that a grounding in one’s own culture could provide the best possible platform from which to engage with the rest of the world. And included in this belief was the intuition that modernism as a work in progress was up for grabs and could be defined anew in relation to each of its particular settings. In this sense the absolutely local was always in counterpoint with everything else and though insisting on its rural identity, Santinketan was a cosmopolitan place in the broadest sense. Tagore travelled constantly and had a considerable exposure to contemporary art in Europe and the United States, South East Asia and Japan. Amongst others, he invited the Japanese artist Arai Kampo to Kolkata in 1919 and in 1921 he invited the art historian Stella Kramrisch to Santinketan were she delivered forty lectures on Western art from the Gothic to Dadaism.
He kept a library of books at his home in Santinketan on art which he brought back from his travels and it is possible that he visited the Bauhaus. Kala Bhavan established in 1919 the same year as the Bauhaus school shared some of its basic principles, particularly in terms of encompassing fine art and craft within the same curriculum. It is more than likely that Tagore had a hand in the exhibition of work by Bauhaus masters that took place in 1923 at the Indian Society for Oriental Arts in Kolkata. Here, in the largest and most comprehensive display of Bauhaus material shown outside of Europe at that time, works by Klee Itten, Fieninger, Macke, Kandinsky and their students were exhibited alongside paintings from the ‘Bengal School by artists such as Ksitindranath Mazumdar and Gagendranath Tagore.
Perhaps the best known graduate of the art school at Santinketan in the West is Satayjit Ray, who attests to the manner in which education combined occident and orient when he said of his time there – ‘Santhiniketan made me the combined product of East and West.’ 5 His films with their often village setting and their attention to the details of rural life reflect the ideal of ‘the Santinketan artist whose ambient imagery aspires to a kind of oriental naturalism’ and Ray’s contribution to this genre is to bring it ‘across the threshold to realism.’ 6 In his work, Ray often examines the interplay between modernity and tradition through a literary approach in which the archetypal and timeless world of the village is cast in relation to forces that come from the outside so that the characters who inhabit this space are sent on a narrative trajectory, which can itself serve as an allegory of a national becoming. For example in Panther Panchali two children playing in a dreaming landscape of tall grass are confronted for the first time with the alien spectacle of a steam train hurtling past, and later, as young man, travelling along the same line on such a train, the boy Apu finds his way to a new life in the city.
In a surreal exaggeration of this encounter between tradition and modernity, in another of his narratives, the screen play for an unrealised film The Alien, Ray contrives to crash land an extra terrestrial space craft into a village lotus pond in rural Bengal. Here the arrival of modernity and its technological apparatus, is problematised in a story where the alien’s magical powers to make crops grow and the dead walk, represent the transformative potential of technology and its application in rural India - although this is not a straightforward hymn to science. Rays alien is portrayed as capricious and difficult to control. Like technology, its workings are beyond the level of everyday comprehension and represent an essentially haphazard and amoral force.
The Modernism of Chandigarh – Then and Now
If Tagore’s plan for a utopian community drew heavily on the ground level reality of village life, on the importance of place and the fact of a living tradition, then one of the Sub Continent’s other famous (or more accurately infamous) gestures towards an Indian modernism does away with all of that. Chandigarh, the capital of both Punjab and Haryana was conceived by India’s first prime minister Jahawarlal Nehru and designed in part by French architect Le Corbusier. Absolutely the conceptual city, the site on which it was built was conceived as a tabula rasa, indeed 500 villages had to be cleared to make it possible and it is rumoured that all the trees in Chandigarh were imported from Europe. Chandigarh was supposed to be a break with everything. Not only the tainted and problematic modernism of the Raj, but also any nostalgia for an indigenous past which would hold the country back in its efforts to modernise. According to Sunhil Khilnani in his comparative studies of Indian cities, ‘Chandigarh belongs in the national album along with the constitution and the five year plans, - building it was one of the foundational gestures through which India oriented and located itself in the modern world.’ 7 That said, like many others he goes on to mount a detailed demolition job on Le Corbusier and his creation. Counter to Nehru’s ambitions for the place, Khilnani sees the city as something of a reprise of Luyten’s Delhi. There is the same megalomaniac architectural conceit, the same uncompromising vision of majestic civic structures arranged in formation along triumphant paths, the elevation of the government buildings, the straight roads, the roundabouts, the avenues of trees and the erasure of the contradictory details that so often typify urban India. With Chandigarh, not only the environment and the climate, but the logical functioning of an Indian city are given short shrift.
Le Corbusier’s conception of the site for his new city was clean cut and there is a beautiful drawing by him in which describes the site for Chandigarh in a few bold lines, indicating the great flat plains sloping up towards the foothills of the Himalayas. Famously he drew up his general concept after the most cursory of visits. ‘Maxwell Fry, a collaborator on the project remembered the moment: ‘Corbusier held the crayon in his hand and was in his element. ‘Voila la gare,’ he said, ‘et voici la rue commercial,’ and he drew the first road on the map of Chandigarh.’ 8 Meanwhile the question of a national style which so concerned Tagore and the artists that he worked with in Santiniketan was ‘cheerfully ignored.’ 9 His was the international style writ large across the landscape, a concrete architectural fantasy which could be placed almost at random anywhere. And yet perversely Corbusier professed that his architecture was indeed designed with an Indian (or what he sometimes called Hindu) aesthetic in mind. In a letter that he wrote to his collaborators in 1951 he states that his buildings were to be of an ‘organic architecture, which is neither English, nor French, nor American, but Indian of the second half of the 20th Century.’ 10 Furthermore in an effort to embed this notion of a modern Indian aesthetic he planned for several Indian architects to come and attach themselves to his office so that they could learn about modernism but with an Indian perspective.
Today, if you drive to Chandigarh from Delhi the city is noticeably different from the hyperactive, mercantile towns that you pass along the way, which seem to be in a perpetual state construction and collapse. The avenues of Chandigarh are indeed green with trees, and interspersed with manicured roundabouts. The roads are relatively clear and the red brick modern apartment blocks and shopping districts are neatly divided into sectors, indicated sector by sector through a comprehensive system of street signs. Sector 1 is the Capital Complex, Corbusier’s masterpiece, comprising government buildings that include the Secretariat, the High Court and the Legislative Assembly. Instantly recognisable from the road, this concrete monster rises out of dry grassland and shrubs and nowadays the whole area is cordoned off by steel fences and barbed wire. In 1995 the chief minister was assassinated by Sikh separatists in a car bomb killing - another nail in the coffin of Nehru’s idea that Chandigarh could be the example of an open modern and secular city for the new republic untroubled by sectarian infighting.
You need a permit to get in, or else the patience to persuade the guards to let you do so, but once you are through the security gates and out onto the main plaza, you instantly get a sense of Corbusier’s grand vision. Notwithstanding the militarised atmosphere, the now impossibility of the large open expanse between buildings becoming spaces of assembly, the condition of the place which seem to be degenerating either through neglect, climactic conditions or simply the nature of concrete, it can’t help but impress. The scale, the eloquence of the facades with their surprisingly playful geometry, the oddly mystical symbolism of a great hand or a human figure or a sun, the majestic swoop of an upwardly curved overhanging roof supported by a single slice of concrete, the vaguely ominous giant sized funnel on top - reminiscent of a power station but crowned by a series of gentle concrete forms which look like several origami birds at rest.
Mohamedi’s Modernistic Idealism
Despite its many critics Chandigarh has also invoked admiration from artists and intellectuals. This is evident in the special attention that Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi gives to Corbusier’s sculptural forms in some of her photographs from the 1970s. Even without knowing what she said or thought about the place, it seems clear that Mohamedi intuitively connected to the architect’s aesthetic. She identifies and frames his dynamic concrete structures into an abstract graphic, dominating the picture space of her photographs, and with the crop and the extreme contrast of black and white reduces these architectural details to a silhouette delineating two triangles and a square – producing forms almost without context. In another photograph she shoots a section of open space across which a long low concrete wall (curved over at the top to from a bench) draws a line across the picture plane towards the foreground of the image.
It is interesting to consider these images in relation to others that she shot in Fatehpur Sikri, the 16th Century Mughal city in Uttar Pradesh, another planned city from an earlier era but one which was quickly abandoned by its makers. Elbowing all other considerations aside, Mohamedi brings to both the same scrupulous focus on the forms at hand, the sharp geometry of a shadow cast by an architectural detail - the line of a watercourse in the glare of the afternoon sun, the flag stones that form secondary more muted grid. In both she reduces the spectrum of the image from the overarching grandeur of its setting to concentrate on an area more related to the human figure, a space that you could perhaps pace around in a few moments. In this sense Mohemedi has a modernist idealism in the power of form to effect positive change. From the anonymous geometry of nature that provides the template, through to good design which can transform the everyday, to the architectural space of the city and of urban planning, the built environment through which the people move on mass. And meditation on forms arranged on the page or even in the mind’s eye, served also to organise an internal space, to bring into equilibrium out of kilter emotions and the disharmonious aspects of life including the degeneration of the body.
In an unintended rebuttal to Corbusier’s critics, with this formal juxtaposition Mohamedi seems to draw a line connecting his supposedly alienated creation to an Islamic heritage of architecture and abstraction, as if on reflection his great work can after all be integrated through a quite act of recuperation into the generous fold of India’s material culture.
- R. Siva Kumar, Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism, National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi 1997, p. 12
- Geeta Kapur, When was Modernism? Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India, Tulika Books Delhi 2000, p. 296
- Ibid., p. 106.
- Ibid., p. 111.
- Amarthya Sen, The Argumentative Indian, Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, Penguin Books, 2005, p. 115.
- Geeta Kapur, op.cit. (noot 2) p. 207
- Khilnani Sunil, The Idea of India, Hamish Hamilton, Londen 1998, p. 131.
- Khilnani Sunil, The Idea of India, Penguin Books, Londen 1997, p. 133
- Ian Buruma, 'India: The Perils of Democracy', The New York Review of Books, New York, 1997, p. 3.